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Group pushing approval of sales tax referendum for arts and parks names its leader

Dancers with the Charlotte Ballet rehearse for the 2019 Choreographic Lab. Charlotte Ballet is one of dozens of arts groups that would receive more funding if voters approve a referendum in November that would raise the county sales tax to pay for arts, parks and greenways.
Dancers with the Charlotte Ballet rehearse for the 2019 Choreographic Lab. Charlotte Ballet is one of dozens of arts groups that would receive more funding if voters approve a referendum in November that would raise the county sales tax to pay for arts, parks and greenways. Charlotte Ballet

With 12 weeks until Mecklenburg County voters decide on a sales tax referendum to fund arts and culture groups, expand parks and greenways and fund teacher supplements, the campaign to get out the “yes” vote is taking shape.

A former Mecklenburg County commissioner will serve as chairman of the pro-referendum group, and three political consulting firms will assist in the effort.

Charlotte architect and former Mecklenburg County commissioner Darrel Williams will serve as chair of Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg.

Three political consulting firms, with ties to both Republican and Democratic campaigns, have signed on too: Charlotte-based The Dew Group, Raleigh-based Campaign Connections and Majority Strategies, which is based in Jacksonville, Fla., and has an office in Raleigh.

If voters approve the county’s proposal, Mecklenburg’s sales tax would rise from 7.25% to 7.5%, an increase that would amount to 5 cents on a $20 purchase. The tax hike would raise $50 million each year.

Some 45% of the money, or $22.5 million, would go to arts and cultural groups. County commissioners are expected to decide next month about how those funds would be allocated, whether through the Arts and Science Council, or the creation of a new non-profit or county department who would divvy up the money, said county commissioner Susan Harden.

Another $17 million would go to parks and greenways; $8 million to education; and $2.5 million to arts and culture projects and parks in the county’s small towns.

Williams served as a Democratic commissioner for four consecutive terms from 1994 to 2002. His architecture firm, Neighboring Concepts, was involved in the design of Romare Bearden Park and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Aisha Dew, who leads The Dew Group, is a former Mecklenburg County Democratic party chair who led the Vi Lyles campaign.

Campaign Connections President Brad Crone has worked for more than 400 campaigns since 1991.

Patrick Sebastian, who heads Majority Strategies in North Carolina, ran Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in the state in 2012 and is an advisor to former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory.

Forming strategies

In a statement, Williams said: “We are going to run a grassroots campaign sharing our message with communities across the county, explaining the critical need to support this effort and detailing how this referendum will improve the quality of life of all residents.”

Dew said it’s too early to say how much money the campaign will spend - funds will be raised through private donations - but said the effort will be “a people-powered operation that engages the community.”

“The referendum ... will impact parks, education and the arts. Our goal is to make sure that we have people who are represented across the community from those different areas,” she said.

Those opposing the proposed sales tax increase have not formally organized, but plans are in place “to hammer out the strategy,” said Matthew Ridenhour, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner who started an online petition opposing the sales tax increase. The petition quickly gathered nearly 400 signatures.

Ridenhour said leaders in the referendum opposition include the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity (the libertarian-conservative nonprofit started by the Koch brothers), as well as former county commission candidate Joel Levy and former Charlotte city council candidate Vanessa Faura, both Republicans.

Ridenhour says leaders will meet next week to put a strategy in place. “We’ll be ready to execute in September,” he said.

He said he hears from voters who oppose the proposed tax increase for a number of reasons, including that they feel the arts, culture and parks don’t line up with what the county should be spending more money on. And some are concerned because the way the money would be divvied up is non-binding, which means future commissioners could veer from the current plan.

“A lot of folks are feeling like, ‘We just had a property tax increase a few months ago – now you want me to pay more in sales tax? When is it going to end?’ “ he said.

Mecklenburg voters soundly rejected a similar sales-tax proposal five years ago that would have raised money for teacher pay raises, Central Piedmont Community College, libraries and the arts.

They’ll consider this referendum on Nov. 5.

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